Letting teachers teach: developing an evidence informed teaching culture that minimises workload.

Let’s face it, there is very little consensus on what an evidence informed culture may look like in schools. Educational research is carried out through the lens of differing perspectives and levels of reliability and validity. The excellent recent post by Andrew shows that the research bandwaggon often has political and other hidden agendas. In addition, we often forget that evidence is generated within schools all of the time. indeed, one of my core mantras has been that ‘I’ll use what works.’

As I drive in to work in the morning, I listen to the Radio 4 Today show, mainly because it’s a wealth of geographical goodness (everything is geography) and, after a 50-minute commute, I feel well informed. Today, an executive from Costa Coffee was being interviewed about their plan to recycle coffee cups and the discussion moved on the the law of unintended consequences.

A niggle that wriggles inside my brain is that school leaders are, rightly, concerned with reducing workload. At the same time, the push for teachers to become engaged in the evidence can have the unintended consequence of increasing teacher time, at least in the short term.  Sometimes, teachers just want to be told what works so that they can have a go.

With this in mind, and a global language of learning to roll out, I’ve set about this term to share some of the main messages of what does work in education. These ideas are by no means unique or innovative, but do link to the need for leadership teams to revisit and repeat the same messages. In other words, to ensure that the signal is greater than the noise. This trickle approach to messaging reflects the feature that professional development is a continual, on-going drip rather than a fire-hose that is delivered on on Inset Day. Hopefully it will also avoid the phenomenon where all teachers try a new technique wiuth every class the week after an inset day, and then never revisit it.

This approach doesn’t rubbish book clubs and other fantastic initiatives out there. Indeed, we are developing a staff CPD library, mainly centered around journals, as I type.

So, what have I done?

Linked this term to three key phrases

These are:

  • Memory is the residue of though. Daniel Willingham,
  • Retrieval beats exposure. Peps McCrea
  • desirable difficulty is a learning task that requires a considerable but desirable amount of effort, thereby improving long-term performance. Robert Bjork

I’ve then set up a weekly reminder to myself to share ideas based around these cognitive ideas. I owe acknowledgement to the Chartered College’s excellent Impact journal (well worth the membership alone) as well as the work of Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby and the keynote at Southern Rocks from Jo Payne.

The key theme is developing memory and getting students to think about what we need them to:

  • Retrieval practice
  • Anchoring effect
  • Dual coding and split attention
  • Concrete examples
  • Elaboration
  • Interleaving
  • Spaced Practice

Above are the concepts and ideas I will be sharing, many of them dating to before my time as a teacher. The ideas is that the salient points are shared rather than expecting staff to find the information themselves.

Staff room screen

We have a large screen in the staff room that is useful for conveying key dates, saying thank you and messages, but also for using to slowly nudge ideas into consciousness.  The following slides are being shown at the moment, with selected quotes. This is an attempt to curate the evidence. To create a signal that staff can think about and filter out the noise. Th other strategies are linked to this.

Staff email

In order to manage staff emails, two ‘all’ staff emails are send each week that collates all of the information into one hit. The first section of the email is for Teaching and Learning, ensuring that our core purpose remains at the heart of what we do. Each Tuesday, I’ve been adding in an idea and some strategies, referring to existing practice when I can. One of the mistakes in some of the evidence informed rhetoric that I read seems to assume that many teachers haven;t been doing similar already. When some of the ideas date to the 1960s, it’s very likely that isn’t the case.  It’s important not to present evidence as new, otherwise what marks it out from a fad? (I’m not sure that some evidence informed practice doesn’t display the features of fads).

What is important is that the email repeats the messages. The principle is also that I share ideas that can be actioned easily and simply, so an adaptable resource is usually attached (for example a retrieval practice grid and an example multiple choice question) This is very much in the vein of a TeachMeet style sharing of ideas. What is important also, is to connect the idea to what may already be happening. For example, Alan Parkinson often takes the mickey out of me for advocating the use of Bing images at the start of lessons to classify industrial activities. This is an example of retrieval practice. Here is the text from this week’s email:

  • Testing is good! Retrieval Practice: You will have noticed the additions to the staff room slideshow. Daniel Willingham says that ‘memory is the residue of thought.’ In other words, what our students think about is likely to be remembered. So how can we get our students to think about what we want them to and not get distracted?

Retrieval Practice (or the Testing Effect) is a way of creating desirable difficulties and one way to ensure that students are thinking about the learning. This is best described as ‘quizzing’ and can take a number of different guises. Essentially, low stakes testing encountered frequently is good for memory and therefore learning. I’ve seen some effective practice around the school linked to this and here are a number of suggestions:

  • Use short answer testing at the start of the lesson. This should be linked to the upcoming learning. Use the retrieval practice grid, Kahoot, Canvas or simply give a spelling test around the key words needed.

  • Give a number of multiple choice questions. The false answers should reflect common misconceptions. This helps us to modify our teaching.

  • Encourage students to self-quiz at home, especially around key, subject specific terms.

Teaching and Learning Briefing

Monday morning is the Teaching and Learning briefing and a chance to reinforce the key messages. This is at the start of the week to give time for ideas to be tried out. As much as possible, the Bright Spots (Hat tip to Shaun Allison), below, are used to identify existing practice. I am yet to find a technique that hasn’t been used by at least one other person.

The briefing shares a few ideas, in no more than five minutes, about the week’s research. The staff email (above) follows on a Tuesday.

Bright Spots and the ‘Five minute feel’

I have argued for the removal of formal, judged, lesson observations at my current school and won. Instead, we conduct ‘five-minute feels’ or lesson visits. I won;t go in to the logistics of these here, except to say that one of the main reasons is to identify effective practice (with all of the issues around proxies for learning that entails) and to ask staff to share either via a Teaching and Learning Briefing or by running an after school PD session.  The primary purpose is to celebrate what we are getting right. This is displayed in the staff room. Of course, we do need to work on the handwriting of SLT!

The Bright Spots board in the staffroom

Tuesday PD sessions

I believe that the variation within a school is often greater than between schools and therefore every school has fantastic staff that have experience with most things. In addition, I have always believed that individuals should have control over their CPD (personal professional development). This is an ethos supported by my current organisations, giving almost 20 days a year for professional development, including five ring-fenced for personal professional development activities.

In addition, getting staff involved in delivering sessions improves their perception of training quality. Finally, giving staff a choice ensures that they are meeting their own needs. Of course, such a system relies upon professional conversations between staff and, although I’m not an advocate of performance related appraisal, a structure of CPD linked to an appraisal process (perhaps better called professional coaching and mentoring?) is essential.

In relation to this post, the sessions will mirror the main focus of evidence as well as balancing in the wider organisation’s strategic direction. Of course, working within a group of schools is always complicated as the global policies need to be adhered to, and it’s an interesting challenge!

Assemblies, newsletters and students

A vital link that is often forgotten are the students and parents. The same information is shared with students, for example using the brilliant Learning Scientists bookmarks flagged to me by an SLT colleague. The strategies of what works are also shared with all year groups (age-related versions as we are an 6-18 establishment) so that they can self-regulate, and are mirrored in assemblies. For example, my assembly this week focused on integrity, but also touched upon self-quizzing as part of self-organised study.

Finally, parents are informed through out fortnightly newsletter, again mirroring the resources and messages and providing questions and resources to support conversations at home.


So, that’s what is happening at the moment to help nudge teachers toward evaluating their own practice to see if teachers are leveraging evidence informed principles. The feedback from staff so far is positive, with all staff agreeing that the professional development offered by the school is positive and helps them achieve our aims.

Have I missed anything obvious? If so, I’d love to hear from you.



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